November 22, 2013

Fifty Years Later, PARKLAND Plays The Assassination Of JFK In A Minor Key

"I filmed a murder."
Since I'm from Boston, I guess it goes without saying that I'm a big fan of the Kennedys.  Full disclosure: a few members of the family went to my high school (as did Teddy back in the day) and Mike Kennedy, whose father Michael died in a tragic skiing accident our freshman year, was a member of my graduating class.  I certainly wouldn't say we were friends so much as we were friendly - I think we played freshman soccer together and we were in one or two of the same classes, but that's about it.  Though even before I had ever met a Kennedy, I was already familiar with the legends.  This is a family of folk heroes, respected across the country and downright beloved in their home state of Massachusetts where even the cloud of a possible manslaughter isn't enough to deter the public from voting them into office.

Conspiracy theories absolutely fascinate me and the JFK assassination is pretty much the brass ring of American historical puzzles.  In the case of something like the supposed alien crash at Roswell,* I think the compelling factor is not necessarily the idea of the government cover up, but instead the idea of conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial life.  It's one of those big "what if" questions that humanity has pondered for as long as we've properly grasped the structure of the universe and that will continue to fill our dreams and imaginations until the day comes that we make finally first contact.  But because alien life is still such an unknown (Would they look anything like us?  Would they be bellicose or benevolent?) it still feels like more of a curiosity, an amorphous idea upon which everyone can imprint their own values or beliefs.  The JFK assassination is different because Kennedy wasn't just a known quantity, he was rock star, a pop culture icon that captured the hearts and minds of the American public.  He was polarizing to be sure and there were plenty of people out there who outright hated the guy, but that only added to his mystique.  Either way, he certainly wasn't someone who inspired ambivalence and that kind of public loss demands an explanation.  Sadly, the subsequent death of Oswald robbed America of those answers, leaving behind so many unknowns that the mystery of that day has endured for half a century.

The violent and unexpected murder of someone as inspirational as Kennedy, whether you're a White House staffer or the owner of a local dress shop, is shocking to say the least and potentially traumatic if you had the misfortune to actually witness the event and/or its immediate aftermath.  That's the focus of Parkland, an ensemble drama which follows those left in the wake of the President's death in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.  There's the swarm of Secret Service agents and presidential aides, the doctors at nearby Parkland Hospital, the Oswald family, the local FBI office that could have arrested Oswald days before, and finally Abraham Zapruder, the man who happened to be filming the Presidential motorcade when shots rang out from the Texas Book Depository.  The film has an absolutely stacked cast and it seemed like Jamie and I spent the whole first half hour saying, "Hey it's that guy!"  Seriously, at one point Jackie Earl Haley showed up as a hospital priest who blesses the body and then walks away, never to be seen again.  At a certain point, the whole thing started to feel disorienting and seriously threatened to pull me out of drama of the story itself.  Is that Tom Welling as a Secret Service agent?  What's Mark Duplass doing in this movie?  Oh, hi Rory Cochrane!  What's happening again?  Oh.  Right.

I love the idea of focusing on the ancillary figures of that day while folks like Jackie and Lyndon Johnson remain out of focus or partially out of frame.  Sadly, the film suffers from the biggest potential trap of most ensemble dramas, namely that the glut of characters causes the film to spread itself too thin across the various storylines until none of them really pop to command your attention.    The emergency room scenes are well executed and appropriately intense because of the circumstances, but I don't really care about any of the hospital staff.  The same goes for the Secret Service agents who rush LBJ to Air Force One and then have to find an appropriate place for the casket as well as the local FBI agents grappling with their own innocent mistake.  It's the Zapruder and Oswald stories that offer the only truly engaging character work.  To be honest, Zapruder's story isn't even all that interesting, but Paul Giamatti is so damn good in the role that you almost don't notice that his entire plot consists of developing a role of film.

The Oswald stuff really stands apart, due mostly to the great work by Jacki Weaver as Lee Harvey's mother Margueritte and James Badge Dale as his brother Robert. (When  is Dale is gonna graduate from incredible supporting actor to carrying his own movie?  I think it's time.)  Margueritte always maintained that her son was actually a secret agent acting under orders from the U.S. government, and whether she truly believed it or simply clung to that explanation in order to cope with Oswald's horrific act is never really addressed.  Regardless of your interpretation, Weaver's steely determination suggests a woman who refuses to be done in by her seemingly tenuous grip on reality.  But your heart really goes out to Bob Oswald, a nice guy who is equal parts shocked and angered and then, before he can properly wrap his head around his own emotions, watches as his brother is gunned down in a police station on national television.  Oswald had no pallbearers and there was no church service because nobody wanted to take the body, a drama we saw play out again this year following the death of one of the two Boston Marathon bombers.  You just can't help but sympathize with the Robert Oswald, as any of us could suddenly be thrust into the same situation without warning.  How would you handle it if someone close to you suddenly committed a horrifying act of violence?  Do you renounce them?  Do you try to understand and perhaps even forgive?  These are the questions plaguing the families of James Holmes and the Tsarnaev brothers, and I hope I never have to answer them myself.

I was in a large meeting at work yesterday and one of the presenters asked how many people in the audience remembered exactly where they were when President Kennedy was shot.  Only two people raised their hands, which surprised me since, at the ripe old age of 30, I'm generally on the younger end of the employee spectrum.  The number of people who can answer that question is only going down and thankfully we haven't seen the successful assassination of a U.S. President in the 50 years since JFK.  I find that to be a rather miraculous fact and I'd be lying if I said I haven't spent the past five years quietly preparing myself for the news that some bigoted asshole has attempted/succeeded in killing Barack Obama for being a Socialist Muslim Hitler.  Anger and vitriol on both sides of the political aisle continues to bubble over each and every day, as evidenced by yesterday's Senate debate, where the adoption of simply majority rule was labeled "the nuclear option."  But even if we are lucky enough to dodge the literal bullet of an assassin's rifle for another 50 years, we will continue to rack up plenty of those "where were you then?" moments.  For me, (so far) it's 9/11 and the Marathon Bombing.  For my kids?  I shudder to think.  But at least for all those moments of tragedy, there are also moments of joy and I look forward to telling my children about seeing the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years as well as the election of this country's first African American President.

And so today my thoughts are with the entire Kennedy family.  JFK is one of my very favorite Presidents along with FDR, Lincoln, Clinton and Obama.  (What can I say, I have a type.)  While I wish I could have been alive to see Jack in his prime, I'd rather he was alive today so that I wouldn't have to write this piece.

*Some would also include the veracity of the moon landing here, but those people are crazy people.  It happened.  Science says so.

Title: Parkland
Director: Peter Landesman
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton, James Badge Dale, Jacki Weaver, Ron Livingston, Mark Duplass, Tom Welling, David Harbour, Rory Cochrane, Jackie Earl Haley, Jeremy Strong
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Redbox DVD

November 21, 2013

ENDER'S GAME Should Have Been An HBO Series

"It matters how we win."
There's a pivotal scene in Ender's Game where the hero is attacked by an older boy while taking a shower.  In the book, Ender, ever the tactician, increases the water temperature to build up a cloud of steam and then lathers himself up with soap in order to prevent his assailant from getting a good grip on him.  It's a clever, quick-thinking maneuver on Ender's part.  In the film, we see Ender turn the shower knob and vacantly rub a bar of soap on his chest, but we never get the sense that these things have any bearing on the ensuing fight.  His actions are presented more as idle stage direction than character-based decisions, thus undercutting the value of his eventual victory.  That kind of sums up the whole movie right there.  At best, Gavin Hood's Ender's Game movie manages to perfectly replicate the experience of someone describing a book they read once in high school but now they only sort of remember it.  In other words, it captures all the broad strokes of the story but lacks any of the nuanced details.

Orson Scott Card may be a bigoted asshat, but his novel Ender's Game is one of my very favorite books of all time.  All of my electronic devices are named after Ender Wiggin's various compatriots and it's the only series of books that Jamie and I both own separate copies of.  To say that I've been looking forward to seeing this world realized on film would be putting it mildly, and while this adaptation certainly isn't terrible and might even be a pretty decent film on its own merits, it certainly doesn't live up to the tremendous promise of the original novel.  I almost would have preferred if the movie was an absolute trainwreck, because in a way Hood's almost-success is even more frustrating.

Pictured above is the Battle Room, a zero-G training facility where Ender and his fellow recruits play war games in order to develop teamwork and basic strategy.  The kids, all geniuses who've been pressed into military service to defend humanity from an alien threat, live on an orbiting space station called the Battle School and while their days are filled with classes and combat training, it's the battle game that really rules their lives.  They're divided into armies (think the different houses of Hogwarts) and the game's leaderboard looms over them in the communal cafeteria.  The majority of the book is spent detailing Ender Wiggin's rise through the ranks of Salamander and Rat armies, developing his own unique battle strategies that at first confound the other armies until eventually they become adopted as the norm.  Finally Ender is given command of the formerly disbanded Dragon Army and then pushed to the absolute breaking point, fighting battle after battle after battle until Ender is completely exhausted.  Eventually he's faced with a Kobayashi Maru scenario: going off only a few hours of sleep, Ender's is faced with an obstructed entrance into the Battle Room while two different enemies who've been given extra time to deploy their forces lie in wait to slaughter Ender's outmatched force.  It's the culmination of a lengthy attempt to physically and psychologically break the prepubescent general, and while Ender's response is brilliant, it's his motivation that's key: he enacts a preposterous strategy that he never expects to work in the hope that his failure will bring an end to his torment.

The Battle Room is one of those things that I've been DYING to see brought to life since the first time (of many) that I read the book.  It's an incredibly cool concept that's painted in vivid detail by Card and simply begging to live on the big screen.  The good news is that the Battle Room is presented perfectly, physically constructed exactly the way I've always imagined it.  And while the battles we see make for some great set pieces, unfortunately there are only about three of them.  It's the very best stuff in the book, but in the film it's almost fleeting.  We don't even get the courtesy of a montage showcasing a few of the book's more memorable moments.  (Bean's brilliant deadline swing is shown once with no explanation or fanfare, while "flashing the feet" is axed entirely.)  This is the fallout of one of the film's few creative changes, constricting the action to the course of about two months as opposed to a handful of years.  I'm sure the intention was to up the sense of urgency, but instead it just makes everything feel rushed.  It's seriously disappointing, even moreso because the Battle Room is so well executed that I actually wanted to to spend as much time there as possible.  The evolution of Ender's tactics from battle to battle makes for a fascinating journey and it's the kind of thing we so rarely see in modern military or action movies, which largely forego any sense of strategy in favor of more explosions.  Here it gets only the vaguest of lip service, conveying more the idea of tactical thinking rather than the actual tactics themselves.

The same problem plagues the entire movie: the Giant's Drink video game and the battle simulations at command school are two of the more memorable aspects of the original novel, and while each is brought to life with creative and effective visuals, both are blown through at breakneck speed, robbing them of any real emotional weight.  That goes double for the film's assortment of supporting roles, including Ben Kingsley's tattooed Mazer Rackham, Abigail Breslin's barely-present Valentine, and particularly Bean, Petra, Alai and the rest of Ender's jeesh.   These are all rich characters, most of whom were eventually promoted to starring roles in the various Ender sequels and spin-offs.  But here none the Battle School kids are given anything you could confuse for a defining characteristic, short of "this one's short" and "that one's got girl parts."  I was truly depressed at the treatment of Bean, a character who was cool in Ender's Game and then transitioned into an engaging hero with a fascinating identity crisis in the Ender's Shadow books.  All I wanted was a hint at Bean's true awesomeness, but instead I got a generic stand-in with about six lines of dialogue and none of Bean's trademark scrappy toughness.  I'll give them points for casting a diverse collection of child actors who actually look to represent the many countries of the world, but I have to take those points back for not using them in any kind of interesting way.  The only exception to this is Moises Arias, who's a dramatic standout as Ender's cruel commander Bonzo Madrid.  Then again, anyone who's seen Arias in Kings Of Summer won't be surprised that he shines here as well.  On the bright side, Harrison Ford actually showed up for this one.  He's awake and alert and actually seems to give a shit about the movie going on around him.  So that's nice.

There is one distinct element from the book that is almost completely whitewashed out of the film, and in a way it's both the most and the least surprising.  Along with the aforementioned shower fight, there's a scene early on in which Ender is forced to fight off a group of terrestrial classroom attackers lead by bully Stilson.  In both fights, Ender defeats his attackers thoroughly in order to ensure that there ain't gonna be no rematch.  In fact, (spoilers for the book) it's later revealed that Ender unknowingly killed both of his young tormentors.  Ender's penchant for utterly (and unwittingly) destroying his enemies is a vital component of his character.  There's no malice in Ender's actions, simply a utilitarian need to survive.  But that doesn't make his actions any less shocking, and the fact that he's recruited to lead the fleet precisely because of this dissociative killer instinct makes the whole enterprise all the more appalling.  But in the film, Stilson and Bonzo definitely survive.  Granted Stilson's gonna have a nasty scar on his face and Bonzo is probably a vegetable, but there's no arguing that they're still alive and I don't see what purpose that serves other than to soften Ender.  But softening him or any of the other kids for that matter flies in the face of what makes him such a compelling character.  Presumably Summit isn't comfortable with child-on-child murder, but considering the overwhelming success of The Hunger Games, a franchise that's built on a foundation of adolescent massacre, such a gunshy mentality seems almost prudish.

If my criticism seems harsh, it's only because I care.  The movie is fine, the kind of thing I'll happily watch on TV in eight months while writing emails or folding laundry.  In truth, this is probably an "ignorance is bliss" situation, where I'd probably have had a lot more fun with it if this was my first introduction to the character.  But as a big fan of the book, this interpretation really lacked heart and left me feeling cold.  Yeah, it's cool to see the Buggers and the Battle Room and all that stuff, but if that's all there is then who cares?  I can see that kind of stuff in any sci-fi movie.  There's nothing under the surface to really keep me invested in the story, like a fried chicken drumstick that's all extra-crispy shell but with no actual meat on the bone.

As I walked out of the theater, I realized that I didn't actually want to see and Ender's Game movie.  What I really wanted was a Game Of Thrones-style series.  I would happily spend an entire 12 episode season (maybe even two) watching Ender make his way through Battle School, followed by another season spent at Command School under the tutelage of Mazer Rackham.  Even a short run series would give the story just a little bit more breathing room and allow the characters to retain the complexities that made them so interesting on the page.  And even if you burned through the events of the first novel inside of two or three seasons, it'd be easy to transition into the Shadow series that takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Formic War.  Yeah, you'd end up losing the title character, but the military/political bent of that series would make for much better TV than the anthropological/sociological focus of the Speaker Of The Dead stuff, and that's coming from someone who likes those books more than most.  Either way, audiences would get the chance to properly experience the multi-faceted Enderverse in a way that simply doesn't feel possible (or at least likely) on the big screen.

Game Of Thrones has proven the marketability of prestige longform fantasy while Walking Dead and American Horror Story have done the same with horror.  Hard sci-fi is the next logical frontier for premium cable television.  It's a shame that Ender's Game won't be that series.

Title: Ender's Game
Director: Gavin Hood
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Moises Arias
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical IMAX 2D - Jordan's Reading

November 20, 2013

Daley Screening Podcast Episode 2: Under The Mask Of KICK-ASS 2

"All that homophobic shit makes you sound super gay."
I'm really enjoying this whole podcast thing.

As the end of my cinematic year quickly approaches, I'm starting to explore different ways to let this project evolve and grow into the future.  Perhaps I'll continue to maintain my daily viewing schedule and just limit the writing portion to only the movies that really provoke me.  I'm not quite sure yet, but I'm really happy with the two episodes we've recorded thus far.  I'm seriously contemplating doing it on a weekly basis while expanding the scope of the discussions to include movie news, trailer releases and other fun and interesting topics, as well as bringing in some more guests.  Does that sound like fun to you?  Because I'm totally falling in love with the idea.

I'm hoping to record a few more episodes in my last three months that will allow me to play around with the format a bit, but if the podcast does become a regular occurrence then I promise to be more on the ball from a scheduling perspective.  For example, this episode was recorded in October for a movie that came out in August.  It's now almost Thanksgiving.  Hardly what you'd call timely.  In truth, I had originally intended to write a regular piece on Kick-Ass 2, but Bart and I had seen it together and had a lot of fun with it, so when we finally got together to record another episode this felt like a good fit.  Our Pacific Rim episode was edited to a tight 25 minutes (down from the original 45), but I decided to let this one run longer and be a bit more free-wheeling in nature.  I only personally listen to two other podcasts and each one tends to run in the neighborhood of 90 minutes.  I'm not really sure if that's atypically long or not, but I actually like it - each episode lasts me a couple of trips back and forth from work.

So enjoy as Bart and I examine the flawed but ultimately entertaining Kick-Ass 2, (spoilers abound) including the merits of CG excrement and the franchise's strange Quicksilver connection before falling into the inevitable rabbit hole of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Bart even partially predicts the now imminent arrival of Iron Fist!  Kick-Ass 2 hits Blu-ray in about a month's time and I'll probably end up buying it.  Eventually.

Stream it or download it for your iThing below via SoundCloud.

Title: Kick-Ass 2
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey, Clark Duke, Donald Faison, John Leguizamo
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - AMC Boston Common

November 14, 2013

Wife's Choice: RENT Just Isn't My Thing

"La vie Boheme!"
As an acting major with a lot of musical theater friends, I understand the profound significance of Rent.  This is a show that means the absolute world to a lot of people and much of that comes from the tragic story of the show's creator Jonathan Larson, who died the morning of the show's first Off Broadway preview performance.  It's one of Jamie's very favorite plays and she simply adores the story, the music and the whole bohemian philosophy that the show espouses.  We managed to see a stage production in Los Angeles starring original cast members Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal and it was impressive to be sure.  Chris Columbus's film adaptation makes an admirable effort to remain true to its source material, and you've got to give the guy credit for being smart enough to reassemble most of the original cast, including the ensemble members who played minor roles.  While it's hardly a perfect rendition and there are some sections (e.g. New Mexico) that seem ill-suited for the literal conventions of film compared to the interpretive styles of the theater, you have to admit that Columbus is making an honest effort to capture that onstage magic.  But even if he had managed to perfectly recreate the original show's energy and emotional resonance, it wouldn't really matter for me.

Rent just isn't my thing.  I know because whenever I watch it, I sympathize more with Benny than with everyone else.*

It's little wonder I couldn't make it as an actor and now work in a cubicle.

I don't have anything against the show itself.  It's well written, full of catchy tunes and the cast really is spectacular.  There's just nothing about the subject matter that really appeals to me and you know how I feel about musicals.  I can't begrudge anyone their love of Larson's masterpiece, but it simply isn't for me and at this point I'm kind of fine with that.

I respect Rent.  I appreciate Rent.  I just don't particularly enjoy Rent.

To each his own.

*Jamie has reminded me that Bennie is, in fact, demanding a year's backrent from the group and not setting new terms to their "lease."  This point is made much clearer in the play than in the film, in which the entire neighborhood looks poised to burn the place down in protest.

Title: Rent
Director: Chris Columbus
Starring: Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Rosario Dawson, Jesse L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Idina Menzel, Tracie Thoms, Taye Diggs
Year Of Release: 2005
Viewing Method: DVD

November 13, 2013

THOR: THE DARK WORLD Is A Funny And Frenetic Course Correction

"Why are there so many shoes here?"
Flying in the face of all logic and history, the various franchises in Marvel's cinematic universe only seem to get better with each installment.  (Not counting Iron Man 2, which would easily be the weakest of the Phase One films were it not for the the lethal combination of Rockwell and Rourke.)   It's a rare sight to be sure, and if this trend continues then I suspect that by the time Avengers 3 rolls around, my head will simply explode from too much awesome.

The first Thor was problematic at best.  Bart and I talked about it while recording my second podcast episode (coming soon!) and I think it's the kind of movie that might actually hold up better on repeat viewings because you can really latch onto the stuff that works (a.k.a. most of the Asgard stuff) and then go make a sandwich during the stuff that doesn't (a.k.a. all of the Earth stuff).  But that film totally nailed the single most important thing it had to do right: Chris Hemsworth is absolutely perfect as Thor, so good that you're willing to stick with him through a middling plot on the promise that you'll get to see him in a better story somewhere down the road.  Thor: The Dark World delivers on that promise.

What's most striking is the film's easy confidence.  In his first adventure, Thor is presented as a sort of buffoonish frat boy, someone who wants all the adventure and glory of being king without the burdens of responsibility that come with the crown.  It's all about his journey from arrogant fool to wise leader, and the fact that said journey felt half-baked and played second fiddle to Agent's Coulson's New Mexico Adventure was one of my main sources of frustration.  But when we catch up with Thor here, he's not only fought off Loki's Chitauri army in New York, he's also put down chaos and uprisings across many worlds and once again brought peace to the Nine Realms.  But he no longer takes any joy from battle, recognizing it instead as a solemn duty.  Gone are the days of Thor (both the character and the franchise) rushing around haphazardly trying to find himself while learning not to be such an ass.  Instead of robbing Thor of his mighty hammer Mjolnir, this film allows him to wield it with instinctive ease, as if the hammer were truly an extension of his own body.  This Thor is a leader of men.  Nay, a leader of gods.

The story is still pretty bare bones, but at least this one has some gravitas: Malekith, leader of the Dark Elves who literally predates the universe, wants to wipe out all of existence an supplant it with his own using a swirling MacGufifn called the Aether.  He was almost successful 5,000 years ago when the Nine Realms were last in total alignment, but he was defeated by Odin's father Bor.  Now the Realms are once again about to align and Malekith is back to finish the job.  So it's your basic "stop the bad guy with the super weapon" plot, and in truth Christopher Eccleson is tragically wasted as Malekith, a villain who's virtually devoid of all personality short of pure menace.  But at least this time the fate of the entire universe hangs in the balance, which is a fair step up from the fate of Random New Mexico Town.  Not only that, but we actually get to visit at least four or five of the Nine Realms, which really broadens the scope of the story while setting the stage for some of the larger, more cosmic moves that Marvel will be making with next year's Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Whatever the story may lack in originality, it makes up in sheer execution.  In fact, I often had to remind myself that I was watching director Alan Taylor's big screen debut.  I'm a fan of his work on Game Of Thrones and that surely helped prepare him for the sort of heightened reality of a superhero franchise that largely revolves around palace intrigue.  Whereas before everyone was trying their damnedest to make everything sound Shakespearean, now they're able to breathe a bit and let the elaborate sets and costumes do the work.  Taylor absolutely runs circles around Kenneth Branagh, although it probably helps that every third shot isn't a Dutch angle.  But Taylor also manages to make the earthbound stuff interesting as well.  There's a fabulous blending of sci-fi and fantasy here, and while that concept was vaguely discussed in the first Thor, here it's actually executed with a deft touch, until you've got a bunch of physicists using homemade inventions to battle an invading force powered by an ancient mystical artifact.  That's fucking cool.  The action sequences are a huge step up both in terms of quality and quantity.  In fact, the film virtually bounces along from one set piece to the next, but each one is exceedingly well staged both physically and emotionally; every battle has clear stakes and some kind of hook or setting that sets it apart from all the rest, whether it be something simple like a throne room sword fight or something extremely elaborate, like the film's final battle that hinges upon the use of some really fun Portal-esque physics.

But it's not all just a battle royale.  For all its dour marketing, this movie is funny!  Really funny!  And I'm not even counting poor Stellan Skarsgard, who's been largely relegated to a pantsless clown here.  It helps that the cast all seems a bit more comfortable in their own skin this time around, so we can get more character based humor, as opposed to the first film's zany fish-out-of-water stuff.  One of my favorite jokes (aside from a quick but excellent cameo halfway through the film) is a simple, throwaway bit where Mjolnir is zooming around the sky trying to catch up with Thor as he's teleported from location to location.  That by itself is pretty entertaining, but at one point it whips past Kat Dennings' Darcy, (greatly improved this time around) who calls out after it and once again butchers the hammer's name.  In fact, I think she calls it "Meow Meow."  It's dumb, but it slayed me.

The Dark World has its problems to be sure, but they're mostly minor quibbles.  The Naked Selvig stuff is absurdly broad and really toes the line of annoyance.  Anthony Hopkins doesn't sleepwalk through the film so much as he just seems annoyed to be there.  It might not be quite so jarring were it not for Rene Russo, whom you'd be forgiven for having no memory of in the first film.  Last time she was essentially a grieving prop, but Russo has turned Queen Frigga into a smart, ass-kicking lady in a film full of smart, ass-kicking ladies.  We finally get a sense of what she really means to both Odin and Thor, but it's Frigga's relationship with Loki that's really heartbreaking and provides even more layers for an already complex character.  I can't believe I'm saying this, but Russo might be the sneaky star of this movie.

I can't believe I've gotten this far without talking about Loki.  Hiddleston deserves a lot of credit, as I think there was a serious danger of Loki-fatigue after his role in Avengers.  But the character is given a really wonderful arc as Thor's semi-willing partner in crime that allows him to grow a bit and perhaps even reclaim some of his soul without ever losing his trademark mischievous guile.  You never quite trust Loki, but you do empathize with him a bit.  Part of that comes from the writing, but mostly it's the quiet humanity that Hiddleston brings to the role.  There's a scene about halfway through where Thor visits him in prison and while at first Loki's cell appears immaculate and well furnished, Thor instantly realizes that it's just another one of his brother's trademark illusions and demands Loki show his true self.  The trickster does, revealing a trashed cell and the distraught demi-god lying crumpled in the corner.  It's a simple but strong moment for both characters, proving that Thor has learned from the past ("Are you ever not going to fall for that?") and that Loki might be more scared and petulant child than evil overlord.  Loki's a character that seemed destined for stagnation, but instead he's only gotten more interesting with each outing.  If Marvel announced a Loki film tomorrow...well that's a terrible idea, but I might still show up just for Hiddleston.

And then there's Lady Siff and The Warriors Three.  Aside from the brief but excellent prison break sequence in the first half, they still don't seem to know what to do with these guys.  In fact, they all disappear halfway through the film, except for Hogun who actually bows out in the first ten minutes.  It's a real shame, as they all manage to do some pretty solid work in their short screen time.  Zachary Levi is a huge swashbuckling upgrade from the wooden Josh Dallas.  It's easy to see why they wanted him the first time around and I left the theater wishing there was an Errol Flynn biopic in development somewhere.  Jaimie Alexander really connects with Hemsworth and makes Lady Siff feel more and more like the warrior woman that Thor is supposed to end up with.  In fact, I was sure they were laying the groundwork for the demise of Jane Foster late in the film.  The romance angle was pretty rushed the first time around and it's not much more fleshed out here, coasting almost entirely on the charm of Portman and Hemsworth.  At this point I think that's the best we're going to get out of this franchise.

Still, this is a vast improvement over the first Thor.  With no more Iron Man movies on the horizon and no plans for Mark Ruffalo to get a standalone Hulk film, that leaves Thor and Captain America as the only Avengers with established franchises.  Winter Soldier looks like it could be the best Marvel film yet and I expect that Cap will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting for Phase Two.  But a week ago Thor felt like simply another cog in the Marvel machine, something to tide me over until the surefire madness of Guardians Of The Galaxy.  (Wait till you get a load of that post-credit stinger!)

Now I'm genuinely excited to see where this franchise goes.

Title: Thor: The Dark World
Director: Alan Taylor
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, Rene Russo, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, Zachary Levi, Jaimie Alexander
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - AMC Boston Common (2D)

November 08, 2013

Celebrating Mattsgiving With The Musical Catharsis Of SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS

"If it's a funeral, let's have the best funeral ever."
In my younger days, every t-shirt I owned proudly displayed the name of some band whose show I'd gone to see.  I've always been a pretty ravenous collector of music and I spent a lot of nights in high school and college going to punk shows at the various tiny clubs located along Landsdowne Street just behind Fenway Park.  (It was a particularly entertaining scene in the summer, as you'd have thousands of baseball fans crowding the streets around the park, and then a few hundred kids in black t-shirts and mohawks lining the opposite sidewalk.)  Live shows were very visceral experience for me; as a kid I'd gone to see some bands play stadiums or outdoor venues, but I'd be sitting so far away from the stage that I felt removed from the band itself.  Sure I could hear the music, but I wanted to see them playing, to see the emotions on the singer's face and attempt to glean exactly what each song meant to guys who wrote it.  That's why I loved going to punk shows.  The crowds and the venues were smaller, sometimes downright tiny, and anyone had the ability to make their way right up to the front of the stage (or in some cases crowdsurf onto the stage) and actually interact with the band.  There was a palpable energy to those shows that would ripple through the crowd, surging with the beat of the deafening music and the flashing of the stage lights.

More than anything else, Shut Up And Play The Hits is remarkable for its ability to recreate that feeling of raw concert energy on screen and convey a sense of intense intimacy even within the cavernous hall of Madison Square Garden.  Walking into this film, I was almost completely unfamiliar with LCD Soundsystem, a band who had suddenly decided to call it quits despite having a fervently committed fan base.  This wasn't a clash of personalities who could no longer stand to be in the same room together.  In fact, watching them interact both on and backstage it's clear that any of these folks would gladly walk into traffic for each other.  They simply wanted to move on to other things and mutually decided to walk away, but not before putting on one last epic show for themselves and all their loyal followers.

The film is smartly divided into three sections: there's the concert footage and backstage musings of that final performance, there's lead singer James Murphy taking stock of it all over the course of the following day, and there's an interview between Murphy and journalist Chuck Klosterman two weeks prior that provides the doc with a lot of wistful voiceover narration.  Each thread is focused on Murphy, but he's in such a distinctly different psychological place in each timeline that we're able to witness a full and emotional journey, nonlinear as it may be.  Murphy gives a fascinating interview, a truly smart guy who's got a keen sense of self-awareness and he approaches the end of LCD Soundsystem from a very measured, intellectual standpoint.  It provides a kind of internal monologue for the concert footage, which is sweet and raucous and joyful and melancholy and exhausting and above all brimming over with love. It also helps that the music is utterly fantastic, and that's coming from someone who had never heard a single note of LCD beforehand.  Having now lived with one of their albums for a few weeks, I'll admit that they might actually be better live than recorded, as Murphy's voice has a deeper, richer quality in the film.  I think it's pretty difficult to watch this movie and not walk away a fan, which makes their disbanding all the more tragic for those of us who are late to the party.

And yet, it's that third thread that's the most heartbreaking.  We follow Murphy from the moment he wakes up the next morning until he eventually meets with his now former bandmates for dinner in Williamsburg.  Aside from an afternoon meeting with the band's manager, he spends much of the day alone and in silence, seeming to contemplate exactly what he's done and where he's going next with only his dog for comfort.  There's a moment late in the film where he walks into the storage room containing all the band's instruments and equipment, and Murphy just stands there, taking it all in.  He'd remained largely upbeat and positive throughout the previous night's show, but now presented with the proof that it's all really over, the dam finally breaks and Murphy stands sobbing in the empty concrete room, like a solitary mourner in front of a casket.

There's a reason I wanted to write about this today of all days.  Today is Mattsgiving, the day that my friends and I celebrate the life of our friend Matt Starring who passed away from leukemia four years ago.  I knew Matt from our college a cappella group Noteworthy, a bright, funny, giving person who was also a wildly talented musician.  He was one of the very best of us and he was gone away far too soon.  But his death was not sudden.  Cancer is a slow knife, and when the end was finally near we all knew it was coming.  I had been living in Los Angeles at the time and hadn't actually seen Matt in a while, so when I got word that he only had a few weeks left, I was faced with a choice: I could either go back immediately to spend a few days with him or I could wait until it was all over and travel back for the funeral, but time and money would prevent me from doing both.  It honestly wasn't much of a choice.  I booked a flight a few days later and flew home to spend Halloween weekend with Matt, his family and our friends. He was still in good spirits even then, and there was a lot of love in the Starring house that weekend, along with a lot of music and so, so much laughter.  When it came time to head back to the airport, Matt was sleeping and I didn't want to wake him, so I wrote him a goodbye message on a paper plate, telling him how much I loved him and how happy I was to see him again, and slipped it under his bedroom door.  It was the closest I got to a last goodbye.  As far as I know, that paper plate is still hanging on the wall in his bedroom.

Shut Up And Play The Hits starts off with that funeral quote at the top, and that's no accident.  Most bands either break up suddenly or simply drift away over time, so it's very rare to see a band hold a "final performance."  The same is true when people die, and in both situations I'm honestly not sure which makes for the harder goodbye, knowing or not knowing.  But the documentary is very much a chronicle of LCD Soundsystem's final days and all the various stages of grief that James Murphy experiences while saying goodbye to his musical creation.  The film's final twelve minutes are pure, heart-wrenching musical catharsis as the band leaves it all out on the field in a single song that I quite frankly cannot stop listening to.  Today I can't help but think of Matt's funeral, where Noteworthy gathered together and, wearing his signature red Chucks, belted out a rendition of "I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends," a phrase I now have tattooed on my right arm.  It was a loud and loving tribute to the man we all loved and would never see again, and if Matt could have seen it, I know he would have been smiling.

Tonight I'll get together for drinks with some of Matt's friends and then a few of us will go up to Vermont this weekend.  Others will gather in New York and Los Angeles and hopefully we'll all get the chance to see each other via video chat.  There will be food and booze and laughter and tears.

And there will be music.

Title:  Shut Up And Play The Hits
Director: Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern
Starring: James Murphy, Chuck Klosterman, Keith Wood, Nancy Whang, Pat Mahoney, Al Doyle, Tyler Pope
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant

November 07, 2013

Work Vs. Play: In Search Of My Own AMERICAN SCREAM

"They may not remember me, but they'll remember what I've done."
The American Scream from director Michael Stephenson (he of Troll 2 and Best Worst Movie fame) is a documentary that follows three "home haunters" who happen to live about an hour away from me in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.  Each year, Victor, Manny and Matthew (with the help of his father Richard) turn their respective homes into elaborate haunted houses, complete with authentic props, set dressings, animatronics, and a collection of volunteers dressed up as all sorts of terrifying creatures.  The three Halloween enthusiasts reside within a few blocks of each other and while all three display an intense dedication, each approaches the yearly tradition with a completely different mindset.  Matthew and Richard are adorably low budget, forgoing any sense of realistic terror in favor of simple entertainment.  I could spend hours watching them try to attach two bloodied baby dolls to a motorized see-saw or build an alien creature out of vacuum tubes and paper towels.  Manny is a tinker at heart and revels more in the creative process than the final product; he has so much fun dumpster diving and actually constructing his creations that he doesn't really care if everything little thing is perfect come Halloween, so long as everyone has a good time.  For Victor, it's all about the big show.  The son of strict religious parents who never allowed him to celebrate Halloween, Victor now spends all year working up to that one night of the year and he's not afraid to drive his family crazy, spend thousands of dollars or enlist the help of seemingly half the neighborhood in order to ensure that once he opens those doors, every minute detail has been precisely designed and executed to terrify each of his visitors.

All three haunters are entertaining in their own peculiar way and their respective houses each looked like an absolute blast on the big night, but Victor was the guy with whom I could most easily identify.  You see, as much fun as Victor has turning his own home into a yearly frightfest, it's just not enough.  Nothing makes him feel as happy, as excited, as alive as when he's haunting.  It's his most favorite thing in the world, and Victor doesn't want to limit himself to just one night a year; he wants to do this ALL THE TIME.

I get that.  It's a debate I've had with myself a lot over the past few years: do I need to have a job that I absolutely love doing, something that makes me excited to go to work every day?  Or can I be satisfied with a mediocre job if I spend my free time engaged in a more fulfilling activity?  I've talked about this before, how my current occupation is neither torturous nor rewarding, it's just sort of there.  I have very little to honestly complain about; I'm well paid, I love my boss, I get the chance to work with interesting new technology and when I leave the office (rarely later than five o'clock) I don't have to think about work until I return the next morning.  I know plenty of people who would kill for a job like this and I'll admit there were some lean times in L.A. when I truly missed the freedom and security of working here.  But after two and a half years, the daily grind of life in a cubicle has started to wear on me and it's become clear that while this job may be logistically more convenient, it still leaves me with an emotional and creative deficit in my life.  I therefore have two alternatives: either I quit in favor of a more personally enriching yet almost certainly less financially solvent career, or I keep my job and throw myself wholeheartedly into some other pastime in my off hours, Victor Bariteau style.

Obviously Option B is the easier choice, as it ensures my ability to keep paying my rent.  And yet, is that enough?  Will the pleasures derived from an engrossing hobby match or outweigh the tedium of a hum drum employment?  Or will I eventually just find myself wishing that my hobby was my employment and getting frustrated when that's not possible?  Am I Team Manny or Team Victor?  In a lot of ways, that's been a big part the experiment that is this website and I'd say the results have been partially successful.  I do really enjoy the writing and I plan to continue steadily in some alternative capacity after my year is over, but the fact that I'm perpetually behind schedule makes the task feel ever more daunting.  (At this point I'm on pace to finish my screenings by March and my writings by May.)  I'm also a little disheartened that, aside from a handful of articles, I haven't been able to significantly increase my readership over the past eight months.  Friends and family tell me that they enjoy reading my posts, and that's truly gratifying to hear, but I don't see people sharing articles on Facebook or Twitter and I just can't seem to get my work to travel outside of my immediate social circle.  Considering the amount of effort I've poured into this project, it's incredibly frustrating to feel like I'm just shouting into the wind.

I'd love to parlay this experience into a steady writing gig for one of the film websites I regularly follow, but I also realize that such a gig isn't going to be the kind of thing that will let me walk away from my day job.  But I expect that to be the case with most anything I'm really passionate about.  I've also been contemplating getting back into acting again, although I've been out of the game so long that it would probably take me a while to work my way back up to level of production I grew accustomed to in college.  Either way, that's not really any more viable of a full time career option than writing at this point.  I guess I'm cursed with a love of occupations that generally operate on low and/or inconsistent paychecks.

So perhaps this decision has been made for me, at least in the short term.  I'll keep going with my perfectly decent job and look elsewhere for personal fulfillment.  I'll continue pouring my energy into the projects and activities that make me truly happy, and maybe if I'm lucky, someday I'll get the opportunity to turn my passions into a career that means as much to me as haunting does to Victor Bariteau.

Title: The American Scream
Director: Michael Stephenson
Starring: Victor Bariteau, Manny Souza, Matthew Brodeur, Richard Brodeur
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant - Laptop

November 05, 2013

It's A Very Zombie Halloween With George A. Romero's Original DEAD Trilogy

"When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth."
After spending a month watching almost nothing but horror films, I had big plans to cap it all off for Halloween.  The Brattle was showing Night Of The Living Dead with a live band providing an alternative score to the film on October 30th and, as luck would have it, the Coolidge was showing Dawn Of The Dead on Halloween night.  That was just too good an opportunity to pass up, so I made sure to grab Day Of The Dead from Netflix well in advance and planned to go through the entire trilogy in order.

Then the World Series went to six games.

If I had tried to squeeze in the Brattle screening I would have missed the first half of the potentially clinching game and then had serious trouble trying to get into a bar for the last few innings.  So I made an executive decision and skipped out on that evening's showing, but since I'd already purchased my ticket for Dawn Of The Dead the following night I had no choice but to pray there wouldn't be a Game 7 and settle for watching the three films out of order.  Certainly not ideal, but still better than nothing.

I love that all three Dead movies exist in a shared universe and that you can see the zombie infestation growing exponentially worse and worse over the course of the trilogy.  Not only that, but each story increases in scope as well.  Night introduces the very first zombie attacks and keeps the action isolated to a handful of strangers who've barricaded themselves into a remote farmhouse.  Their only objective is survival, staying alive long enough to find some kind of help.  They don't know exactly what's happening or why, but such concerns are academic when there's a horde of ghouls (the word "zombie is never spoken) banging down the front door.  We do hear some radio and television news reporters struggling to get a handle on exactly what's happening out there and in fact the initial reports are classified simply as mass murders with an element of cannibalism.  It's not until the president starts convening with NASA scientists that it becomes clear that something far stranger is afoot.

PS: Night clearly attributes the zombies to radiation carried by a satellite returning from Venus.  That's about one step shy of an alien infestation or biological attack.  Why didn't anyone ever tell me this?  How did I not know that Romero's zombies actually come from space??

These early zombies also exhibit behavior would be considered pretty a-typical these days; a few of them use rocks and clubs to smash in windows or beat down doors and one even stabs a woman to death with a gardening trowel.  You don't often see zombies using tools in that way and indeed such unique behavior would go on to become a major plot point for Romero down the line.  From a visual standpoint, Romero's first batch of zombies are almost charmingly simple compared to the kind of stuff now seen every week on The Walking Dead.  The makeup isn't overly complex and the majority of the zombies simply appear gaunt and pale with a detached look in their eyes.  There are a few standouts, but most of the extras don't feature severed limbs, rotting flesh or festering wounds.  That's fine though, because the black and white aesthetic gives Romero a lot more bang for his few bucks and gives the nighttime setting a stronger sense of menace.

Dawn Of The Dead immediately throws us right into the deep end of the apocalypse, with a local news station struggling to stay on the air and broadcast accurate and useful information to the masses while riot police storm through housing projects in an effort to mop up both criminals and reanimated corpses alike.  The national infrastructure is still somewhat in place and we hear reporters talk about the President sending legislation to Congress, however it's clear that this is no longer just a series of isolated incidents but in fact a full blown national emergency.  Trying to stay ahead of the disaster, news producer (I think?) Francine and her pilot boyfriend Stephen fly off with SWAT officers Roger and Peter and eventually settle down in an abandoned shopping mall.  They clear out whatever zombies are inside and then lock the place down to prevent any outsiders, living or undead, from breaching their little corner of security.  After that the group finds themselves stocked with an embarrassment of riches.  The world may be sliding into chaos outside, but inside they've got piles of food, guns, ammunition, TVs, fur coats and fancy champagne.  Along with having their run of the entire mall, they actually turn an isolated old storage room into a secluded little bungalow, complete with a living room, love nest and fondue set!  It looks like good times and smooth sailing, despite the growing number of corpses walking around outside the gates.  Eventually they even fall victim to the ennui of the wealthy, idly skating around the empty ice rink and trading hundreds of meaningless dollars in a game of cards.  Stephen actually proposes to Francine but she turns him down because "it wouldn't be real," implying that their emotional bond isn't enough reason for them to stay together and that without a ceremony full of adoring onlookers their marriage would somehow be considered a sham.  Yet they're not willing to go out in the world and search for other survivors despite having their own helicopter.  They're won't risk their own ivory tower in order to help those most in need.

But as is customary when the 1% hordes necessary resources, eventually the 99% gets pissed and comes looking for a piece of the good life.  In this case, the common folk are embodied by a biker gang led by Tom Savini, who was also the film's head makeup artist.  (I'll forgive Savini the terrible blue-faced zombies only because the rest of his work is so outstanding.)  Once the bikers come upon the mall and realize that there are people living in there, they storm the gates and ransack the place, letting in a swarm of zombies in their wake.  But it's telling that the looters don't go after food, guns or essential supplies and instead snatch up jewelry, TVs and cold hard cash from the mall's bank branch.  It seems that everyone, from street thug to socialite, is preoccupied with a sense of crass materialism and ensuring their own comfort to the detriment of all.  They're willing to forego stark practicalities or deny the new status quo in order to cling to a reality that no longer exists, to say nothing of eschewing the simple morality of helping other people because there's safety in numbers.

Day Of The Dead escalates the scale of the zombie destruction even further.  The struggle between man and corpse has long since ended, with whole cities overrun by the undead and not a living soul in sight.  We meet a handful of survivors who've locked themselves away in an underground military bunker in Florida, the only remnants of a last ditch effort by the government to determine exactly why the dead are coming back to life and how to stop them.  These people, a hodgepodge of military personnel and research scientists, have all but given up searching for other people in the wreckage of civilization; the isolation, sleep deprivation and dwindling supplies have brought the group to the very brink of sanity.  The soldiers (one of which is played by effects artist Greg Nicotero) have devolved into screaming, violent lunatics who want nothing more than to abandon their post and satisfy their own bloodlust, while the scientists, led by Dr. Frankenstein, have come up frustratingly empty despite countless hours spent dissecting and studying the zombies they've trapped in an old mine shaft.  In fact, it's gotten so bad that Frankenstein has abandoned all attempts to stop the zombie outbreak and has instead turned to finding a way to domesticate the creatures.

Frankenstein asserts that since we can't get rid of the zombies we must learn to live in harmony by training them to perform menial tasks and not to think of living people as food.  (This same concept was amusingly realized at the end of Shaun Of The Dead.)  His star pupil is Bub, a.k.a. the single greatest character in the entire trilogy.  He's seems to exist in a state of childlike wonder, which makes sense considering that Frankenstein acts as a sort of father figure.  Watching Bub use a shaving razor, try to read Salem's Lot, or learn how to make music come out of a cassette deck is downright adorable and you almost forget about the creature's savage nature.  Of course the dark secret to Bub's success is that Frankenstein has been rewarding the zombie's progress by feeding him the remains of dead soldiers, the discovery of which sends Rhodes, Steel and the other soldiers completely over the edge and forces a final bloody showdown featuring unparalleled zombie carnage.  Most of the film is simply people arguing in a bunker (a setting that always feels like a cost-saving measure), so it's not until the film's final 15 minutes or so that we get any really good zombie kills.  But rest assured that your patience will pay off, as film's finale is an absolutely gleeful splatterfest of gore at the hands of a number of amusingly costumed zombies.  If you enjoyed the Hare Krishna zombie in Dawn, wait till you see some of the outfits in the finale of Day.

The progression of the zombie apocalypse and the human response to it over the course of all three films is pretty fascinating: the zombies begin to slowly evolve into actual people while humanity slips backwards and embraces its most base instincts.  Or at least all the white people do.  We've all grown accustomed to the horror trope of the black guy dying first, so you've got to give credit to Romero for giving each film a strong, intelligent black lead who always acts with dignity and never sheds his own morality just to stay alive.  Ben, Peter and John are all unflappable in the face of disaster and they're exactly the kind of guys you want by your side when you're fighting off legions of the undead.  It certainly stands in sharp contrast to The Walking Dead, a show that operates on the unspoken rule that the audience is only allowed to care about one black character at a time.  The fact that Michael and D'Angelo from The Wire are both still alive after four episodes feels like a minor miracle, but since they're both out on the same supply run right now I fully expect one of them to go down before they make it back to the prison.

I do feel like there's an element missing from Romero's original trilogy that The Walking Dead actually handles pretty well, and that's depicting an attempt to actually forge a life and perhaps even a community in the midst of the zombie wasteland.  Dawn spends a lot of time with the zombies as an almost abstract threat that only exists outside the safety of the mall.  Our heroes are insulated and able to live a life of idle contentment within the walls of their hideaway.  And while I don't necessarily think we're supposed to believe that the soldiers and scientists of Day are the last people left on Earth, they might as well be since we never meet anyone else.  Either way, those guys have already gone fully round the bend before the movie even starts.  But between Dawn and Day lies a middle ground, where zombies remain a threat and people struggle to survive but they're able to work together and maintain some semblance of hope for the future.  Zack Snyder's Dawn Of The Dead remake moves a little closer in that direction, but if my vague recollection of Land Of The Dead is correct then I think that's the droid I'm looking for here.  I'll have to give it another watch this week to be sure.

I'm reminded of my reaction to Contagion, in that it's fairly impossible to watch a zombie movie and not start coming up with your own zombie contingency plan.  I actually love the shopping mall idea if only because it would provide you with a wealth of resources, but such a place would also surely attract Savini-esque looters.  The trick is to find a secure, defensible location that lies outside of a major population zone.  Hopefully that would ensure fewer zombies to deal with but also perhaps fewer marauders.  As much as I criticize the callous and insular behavior of Dawn's heroes, I have to admit that in the same situation I would probably act in a similar fashion, wary of broadcasting my position to outsiders.  Sure I have an intellectual problem with that now, but when it's a matter of personal survival with no promise of rescue or safe haven, it's hard to imagine what I wouldn't do to protect myself and those closest to me.  You want to believe you can take in strays and help others, but as I just admitted we all have the capacity for ruthless action when our back is up against the wall.  In the zombie apocalypse, all bets are off.

I will say this.  My disdain for "fast zombies" has now grown exponentially.

Title: Night Of The Living Dead
Director: George A. Romero
Starring:  Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Riley
Year Of Release: 1968
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

Title: Dawn Of The Dead
Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Ken Foree, David Emge, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, David Early, Tom Savini
Year Of Release: 1978
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Coolidge Corner

Title: Day Of The Dead
Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Jospeh Pilato, Richard Liberty, Jarlath Conroy, Anthony Dileo Jr., Sherman Howard, G. Howard Klar, Greg Nicotero
Year Of Release: 1985
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

November 03, 2013

Spielberg's DUEL: They Don't Make 'Em Like This Anymore

"How can he go so fast?"
Living in Los Angeles taught me to love driving.  Since I knew I'd be spending a lot of time in my car, I wanted to get something totally reliable, as opposed to the used cars I had in Boston that always seemed to have something wrong with them.  So I bought a brand new 2006 Honda Civic and I named her Samantha after Natalie Portman's character in Garden State, a movie that hit me like a ton of bricks at the time.  Samantha and I have been through a lot, from late nights drives along the PCH, to battling our way through rush hour traffic in the heart of downtown L.A., to a cross-country drive across the southwest and all the way back to Boston.  Samantha rocks.  I'll be really sad to let her go when the time comes for Jamie and I to move out of the country.

Most of my friends can tell you that I've had my fair share of automotive scrapes over the years.  There was the time I hit the door frame while pulling into my garage, or the time I got my license plate torn off by a passing car while pulling out of a movie theater.  Once in high school a student debater from another school (who I had just judged in a round 30 minutes prior) ran in front of my car, flipped over the hood and twisted his leg.  He totally admitted it was his fault since I wasn't speeding and he was running across the street without paying attention.  It was all fine in the end, but it now referred to as "That Time Daley Ran Over A Braintree Debater."  I've had minor scratches, fender benders and I've even totaled my dad's SUV, but these were all honest accidents and most of them occurred when I was a teenager.

Road rage is a different beast all together, one that I've never truly experienced.  There was one time in L.A. that a guy thought I cut him off and when I pulled over to park about a block later, he actually parked behind me and got out to yell at me.  But I was polite and told him I didn't know what he was talking about and that if I had cut him off then I was sorry, so he immediately let it go and drove away.  I don't think he really wanted to fight me, he just needed to vent his anger and frustration.  The closest I've come to really dangerous "road rage" was a trip to Cape Cod, where the breakdown lane is frequently open to traffic to relieve congestion approaching the Bourne and Sagamore bridges.  But that's only true for certain stretches of road, and on this particular trip I was driving in the lane without realizing that I had passed out of the approved zone.  But the minivan in front of me knew it and the driver took it upon herself to act as the All High Guardian Of The Highway.  As I came up behind her, she drifted her car half into my lane, refusing to let me pass.  I hung back and eventually she pulled back into her lane, but as I sped up she did it again, and proceeded to repeat this maneuver two more times before violently swerving HER CAR FULL OF CHILDREN out into the lane and almost running us off the road.  I later realized that I had been driving in the wrong lane, but that hardly justified the other driver's actions, almost causing a multi-car collision on a crowded highway out of some misplaced sense of righteous indignation.  Either way, it was a pretty scary moment.

Thankfully she wasn't driving a tanker truck.

Of all the Spielberg movies I've never seen, Duel is easily the one I was most excited to watch, as it was technically his feature directing debut.  I say "technically" only because, while it got a theatrical release in Europe, here in the U.S. Duel played as a TV movie.  These days there's a lot of baggage that comes with movies for TV, but that wasn't always the case.  TV used to a place for burgeoning young talent to prove themselves before moving on to fry bigger theatrical fish, and you often saw some pretty significant late-term actors come around for these projects as well.  These days TV movies are usually tabloid related and involve actors who can't get work in real movies anymore.  I'm looking at you, Lindsay Lohan.

Duel is not just engrossing, it's inventive for its day and really feels like it's challenging the audience to get a bit weird.  That's little surprise considering there's a young and hungry Spielberg behind the camera and a story by the brilliant Richard Matheson, the man behind so many of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone as well as that which would be later adapted into The Last Man On Earth, The Omega Man and I Am Legend.  In fact, more than anything else Duel feels like a great feature-length episode of The Twlight Zone.  The story follows David Mann (Dennis Weaver), an average guy driving through the desert highways of California on a sales trip who encounters a rusted behemoth of a truck whose mysterious driver quickly turns a long and tedious drive into a terrifying game of cat and mouse.  After Mann overtakes the truck on a single lane road, the truck roars up behind him and passes in front, only to slow down and box out Mann's red Valiant.  The two drivers jockey for position until the truck finally forces Mann off the road near a local diner.  Mann goes inside and tries to collect his wits, only to discover the truck parked outside.  The driver is clearly fucking with him, and after Mann assaults an innocent patron he believes to be his vehicular rival, the truck takes off down the road again.  Mann gets kicked out of the diner and resumes his journey, only to find the truck waiting for him a few miles down the road.  The game is on, and neither player will stop until someone's dead.

This is the pinnacle of effective simplicity.  The story starts out as a real slow burn; after a long initial stretch of POV driving, Mann encounters the truck and it's not immediately clear if the other driver is acting out of malice or if he's just a shitty driver with no regard for other denizens of the road.  For the first 25 minutes there's no score to hype up the tension, just Mann's radio and the rumble of the two engines.   By staying solely with Mann and never cutting away to the other driver, Spielberg puts us squarely in his shoes and appeals to those moments in our own lives when we've experienced a close call with some asshole behind the wheel, where you're sitting in your car thinking, "What the hell is this guy doing?  He's gonna kill someone!"  You have no idea what's happening in the other car or what's going through the driver's mind, you can only react to what's happening and try to avoid a collision.  Spielberg draws that tension out for as long as possible, until finally the truck tries to push the Valiant in front of a train and then almost runs over Mann in a phone booth (in which Spielberg's reflection is briefly visible) and suddenly all bets are off.  Now it's war.  And by not showing the driver, the truck itself becomes the villain, and it's an absolutely terrifying one with its streaks of old paint and the giant tanker hitched behind marked flammable, basically promising an explosion at some point.  By the time I was halfway through the movie I didn't even want to see the driver because that would have extinguished all the mystique.

Dennis Weaver is fantastic, especially considering how much of the movie he has to play by himself sitting alone in his car.  In fact, other than the wife with whom he has a quick phone call at the beginning, David Mann is the only character in the whole movie who actually has a name.  Weaver's got enough screen presence that he doesn't need to do much to relay exactly what he's feeling and thinking.  In fact, I wish it was even more minimal.  He doesn't have a whole lot of dialogue, but he does have a whole voiceover internal monologue in the diner that I could have done without.  The movie was shot in only 12 days so it's no wonder that everything feels so stripped down and minimal, but it also never feels cheap or lacking in any way.

It's almost shocking to think that something this peculiar ever aired on primetime network television, and I wonder how it was received by audiences in 1971.  Obviously today's television landscape is very different, but I can't imagine a movie like Duel finding a place there today, even with the multitude of cable channels who are churning out their own original programming.  Well, I take that back.  A movie about a guy being hunted by a killer big rig truck would fit right in on SyFy, but that would be a very different movie.  I'm guessing there would be a mutant alligator blizzard involved.

Thanks to Jeff Schwartz for digging this out of the Emerson film library and inviting me over for pizza and whiskey!

Title: Duel
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Dennis Weaver, Jaqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell, Lucille Benson, Gene Dynarski
Year Of Release: 1971
Viewing Method: DVD

November 02, 2013

I Watched THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL And Then The Red Sox Won The World Series

"The party's starting now..."
I was a senior in college when the Boston Red Sox won their first world series in 86 years.  The season before we had lost the ALCS to our longtime rivals the New York Yankees in a Game 7 heartbreaker, so when we were able to turn the tables and pull off an unprecedented come-from-behind victory over the dreaded pinstripes after trailing three games to none, suffice it to say the town went ballistic.  Literally.  Victoria Snelgrove, a classmate of mine at Emerson who was there covering the celebration as a student jounalist, was shot and killed after police in riot gear started shooting "non-lethal" rounds into a crowd in Kenmore Square and she took a pepper pellet to the eye.  It was an awful dagger of tragedy that slashed through what should have been a joyous occasion. The Sox would go on to sweep the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals and I've always maintained that the only reason the city of Boston didn't burn to the ground that night in October was because everyone felt so shitty about Victoria and because the clinching game hadn't actually taken place at Fenway Park.

I'll always remember that night.  I actually had a ticket to Game 5 and I was in the car with a bunch of friends heading down to St. Louis.  We'd gotten a late start so we were just passing through Worcester and listening to the game when the eighth inning rolled around and it became clear that Game 5 wasn't going to happen.  Someone in the car knew a guy who lived nearby, so we pulled off the highway and invaded this guy's living room in time to watch the bottom of the ninth.  Sox closer Keith Foulke fielded a ground ball to the mound, tossed it to first, and we promptly went apeshit in the middle of a stranger's home.  We jumped up and down, screaming and hugging for about two minutes before piling back into the car and tearing ass back towards Fenway.  We made record time back to the city and joined the masses in Kenmore Square until the police formed a barricade and forced the crowd down Beacon St. and Comm Ave, in the opposite direction of my apartment.  When people refused to move, tear gas canisters were tossed in to disperse the crowd.  I'm still not entirely sure how it happened, but somehow I ended up outside Gate B by the statue of Ted Williams placing his cap onto the head of a small boy with cancer.  (Williams was a fierce advocate for The Jimmy Fund.)  I just stood there, still blinking away tears (from the gas...) and reveling in a moment that I might never see again, when the hometown heroes and perennial losers overcame unbeatable odds and were crowned champions of the world.

I have a very strong connection to the Red Sox.  Of all the sports teams in Boston, the Sox were my favorite growing up and easily the team I got see play in person most often.  Just a month before that 2004 World Series victory I had worked as a production assistant on the Farrelly Brothers film Fever Pitch, starring Jimmy Fallon as a die hard Sox fan who falls in love with a baseball neophyte played by Drew Barrymore.  It was the first time I'd ever been on a professional film set and it was an absolute dream come true.  Not only did I get the chance to experience Hollywood filmmaking up close and personal, but I got to spend two weeks with an all access pass to Fenway Park.  I even got to watch a game from the owner's seats on the right field roof deck, with Fox picking up the tab for all our food and drinks.  That was a magical season, and a few weeks after it was all over, with my  move to L.A. looming large on the horizon, I went to Harvard Square with a buddy and got my first tattoo: the Red Sox "B" right at the top of my spine.  I'd always wanted a tattoo but had never been able to settle on a design I knew I'd still be happy to have in my twilight years.  Suddenly it seemed like a no-brainer.  Not only was it a symbol of the team and their incredible accomplishment, but of the city I loved and would soon be leaving behind.  I've spoken before about our community of Boston ex-pats in Los Angeles.  It was a huge part of my identity in that place and when the Sox somehow managed to pull off another championship victory in 2007, we were absolutely flabbergasted.  We all wanted to be home celebrating, but we didn't mind being 3000 miles away because we had each other.

I moved back to Boston in 2010 and the Sox continued to be an active part of my life.  Over the course of our friendship and subsequent courtship, Jamie had become a bonafide member of Red Sox Nation, especially since New Orleans doesn't have its own baseball team.  When it came time for me to propose to her, Fenway seemed like the ideal location, although I knew that going to a game and proposing on the jumbotron in frot of 37,000 fans would give her an instant panic attack and might result in her passing out before she got the chance to answer me.  So shortly after the season had ended I talked to a friend who worked for the team and told her my plan.  She got us in under the guise of a private tour and once we got up onto the Green Monster, I took out a cupcake with an engagement ring placed atop the frosting.  Obviously that worked out pretty well for me.  A few months later the same friend hipped me to a job opening in the team's IT department and before I knew it I had quit my job at the Apple Store and had an office overlooking the concourse behind third base.  I only stayed with the team for about half a season, but it was a helluva rollercoaster ride.  The team started the year 2-10, then clawed their way to the best record in baseball by the All-Star break. That's right around the time I was lured away from Fenway by the promise of higher pay and shorter hours at my current place if employment.  I loved working for the Red Sox and I learned a lot in a short time, but once the season kicked into gear I was working about 70 hours a week for a paycheck that would have been fine if I was working half that.  And with my nuptials right around the corner and some intimidating credit card debt hanging over my head, I had to make it all about the money.  It really pained me to leave and I still feel bad about it even today, but I ultimately made the right choice.  This site certainly wouldn't exist if I hadn't left.

Sadly that season ended in misery and scandal, with the team going 7-20 in the month of September and just barely missing the playoffs.  It was the season that drove beloved manager Terry Francona out of Boston after it came out that some players had been drinking and eating Popeye's in the clubhouse during games.  It will forever be known as The Season Of Fried Chicken And Beer.  And the less we say about the following year's trainwreck under Bobby Valentine, the better.  Suffice it to say, when GM Ben Cherrington traded most of our expensive free agents to the Dodgers and hired former pitching coach John Farrell to take over the team, the Fenway Faithful prepared themselves for another "rebuilding year."

Man, we were WAY off.

It's been an unbelievable season, with the Sox grinding out wins all year long.  They were never very flashy about it and at first a lot of us didn't even realize what was happening.  After all, we had the Bruins making a serious bid for their second Stanley Cup in three years, then a special Senate election to fill the seat left by John Kerry when he was named Secretary Of State.  And then there was the Marathon bombing.  The team always plays an early game on Marathon Monday, and for a lot of folks it's a yearly tradition to leave Fenway and head down to Copley to watch the runners cross the finish line.  When those twin explosions rang out on Boylston Street and shook the city down to its foundation, it was the Sox and the Bruins who were there to prop us all up and remind us why Boston is one of the greatest cities in the world.  They helped raise money for the One Fund, the players visited victims in the hospital and the team invited first responders and civilian heroes onto the field to throw out the opening pitch, drop a ceremonial puck onto the ice or kick off an afternoon at the ballpark with a rousing, "Play ball!"  The Sox held a ceremony before the start of the first home game after the attack, where David Ortiz grabbed the mic and thanked the city officials who worked so hard to sort out the aftermath and bring those responsible to justice.  And then he gave Boston a rallying cry:

"This Is Our Fucking City!"  

As time marched on the team's wins increased with the length of the beards until suddenly we were running away with the entire American League.  And after the Bruins had come up short, it seemed like the Sox were destined to win it all once more for the city that loved them so.  They made short work of Tampa Bay in the divisional series and then faced down Justin Verlander and the aces of Detroit with an unrivaled temerity.  It looked dicey there for a minute, but after Big Papi's game-tying grand slam in Game 2 that sent Tori Hunter flipping over the bullpen wall while Officer Steve Horgan raised his arms in triumph, well there was just no turning back.  I was really hoping for a Sox-Dodgers World Series, if only so that all my Boston friends still in L.A. would get the chance to see our boys at Dodger Stadium, but the boys in blue eventually fell to St. Louis in the NLCS.  So just like in 2004, it would be the B's versus the Birds once more.

We all joked that the Sox should just throw two games so that they could clinch the series at Fenway for the first time in 95 years, and after Jim Joyce's obstruction call it was assured that the boys would in fact be coming back to decide their fate on their home turf.  The series will be remembered as a pitching duel, with most games still tied 0-0 or 1-1 heading into the sixth or seventh inning.  Lackey and Lester were virtually unhittable, and Clay Buckholtz turned in one of the gutsiest starts I've ever seen, using precise pitch control to confound batters after a sore shoulder had robbed him of his usually dependable fastball.  And oh yeah, let's not forget about closer Koji Uehara, who was supposed to be a setup guy and morphed into the most dominant closer the team has ever seen.  The man is absolute strike machine, stonewalling one hitter after another and throwing only a single walk since the All-Star break.  While the Sox bats were often slow to get started, each time it was the unlikeliest of heroes that stepped up at a crucial moment.  The largely hitless Johnny Gomes smashed a three run homer to tie the series after coming in as a last minute replacement for Shane Victorino, who would return three days later and knock a bases clearing double in Game 6 after sitting out the last two games with a sore back.  And Big Papi was an absolute BEAST, hitting for a jaw-dropping .770 in the series and coming up with one clutch hit after another.

Jamie and I really wanted to be in the city when we clinched it, so Wednesday I left work and immediately headed toward Fenway to scout out the bar situation.  At 5:15 the place was already a mob scene, with lines around the block for every watering hole in a two block radius of the park.  I walked around a bit, got myself a hot dog on Landsdowne street as well as a souvenir program, a World Series pennant and some rally cards, then hightailed it back to Boylston Street and slipped into McGreevy's before the lines started there too.  Jamie was meeting me there along with Lauren and Bryan, two friends who are regulars at my Tuesday night trivia show, so it was up to me to find us a spot and then hunker down until reinforcements arrived.  I missed getting a booth by about ten seconds to a pair of crafty girls named Liz and Katie, but they took pity on me and let me hang with them until another table opened up.  One guy paid a group $100 to let him take their booth after they left, and at that point everyone was settled in and nobody was leaving until the game was over.  But by then Liz and Katie and I had become fast friends, and when the rest of our respective groups arrived we all shared the table and cheered together between pitchers of Octoberfest and shots of Dr. McGillicuddy's.  When Uehara came in for the ninth, we knew it was all over.  When he struck out the last batter, the place erupted into chaos.  Witness, and enjoy gazing down my screaming throat.

After about ten more minutes of sheer madness, we finished our drinks and exited the bar.  Instead of turning right and fighting our way into the celebrating hordes of Kenmore Square, we turned left and walked down to Copley Square, cheering and high-fiving passing pedestrians.  We reached the Boston Public Library and stopped at the Marathon finish line, where a crowd was already starting to form.  Cars drove through, flashing their lights and honking their horns while the passengers leaned out their windows with big dumb smiles on their faces.  People laid their jerseys down on the pavement and took pictures in front of the blue and yellow concrete.  Jamie and I were no exception.

Six months ago this had been the site of a horrifying tragedy.  Tonight it was bathed in euphoria.

I can't wait for next season.


OH RIGHT!  I almost forgot.  Before the game started I watched the original House On Haunted Hill.  Vincent Price is totally awesome but I was disappointed at the lack of actual ghosts.

The bit with the skeleton is also super fun.  I wish I could have seen it in the original Emergo.

Title: The House On Haunted Hill
Director: William Castle
Starring: Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Richard Long, Alan Marshal, Carolyn Craig, Elisha Cook Jr.
Year Of Release: 1959
Viewing Method: Amazon Prime Instant Watch